Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Back on the Mountain

Tuckerman Ravine from Hermit Lake Shelter. You can see a fresh crown line from an Avalanche the slid Saturday night.
(bowl center)

As I mentioned in my last post, I spent this past weekend on Mt. Washington taking a Level 1 Avalanche Course taught by Marc Chauvin. A few years ago, I took a High Angle Self Rescue Course with Marc and I learned an enormous amount of useful information which really changed a lot of the things I do when climbing, making my outings even more safe. Marc is one of the most highly accredited guides in the valley, also one of a few AMGA certified guides in the area. He has over 30 days of formal Avalanche Training as well. Saturday, the first day of this two day course was spent primarily indoors going over the text book information. There were eleven people in the group, mostly skiers or snowboarders and only 1 other climber, Joe, who is actually from Portsmouth, NH. We all introduced our selves and our reasons why we were there and some words about our background. There were some very interesting people in the class. A lot of them had big trips planned, one to Colorado, and one to Chile, one to the Sierras and on and on. I shared my reason for being there...I wanted to get a greater awareness of how, why, and when Avalanches happen. After 17 years of climbing and hiking in the White Mountains and the recent avalanche death of one of my best friends and climbing partners, I felt the need to further my knowledge of my surroundings. I have been in Avalanche Terrain quite a bit throughout my time as a climber and mountaineer; thankfully I have been lucky so far. Plus, it forced me to get back up there since the awful events of January 18th. I am glad I did too. I found some peace and gained some strength while I was there, which I really needed. The weather was beautiful as you can see in the photos.

After Lunch on Saturday we did some Avalanche beacon training. Essentially, learning how to locate a fellow climber who may be buried. A friend of mine Derek Fox, recently gave me a brand new and very expensive Avalanche beacon. So I was able to use my own tools and learn about how to use it. It was very interesting and I certainly plan to carry mine with me on my travels into avalanche terrain in the future.

Marc pointing out pockets of instability in Hillman's Highway as well as
wind loading taking place high on the Boot Spur ridge.

Sunday we ventured up the mountain, hiking up the Tuckerman Ravine trail. As a group, Marc had told us the day before to make decisions as a group, hike, climb or ski as a group, basically instilling good team work ethics in our minds as we headed up the trail which increases the safety of the whole team. That brings me to Sand Bag # 1! He had said in class on Saturday he was going to "sand bag" or "trick" us and less than half a mile up the trail, we learned that we had been taken! Marc was at the front with some of the younger skiers and they were skinning up the trail. When I say "skinning up the trail" what I mean by that is they have climbing skins on the bottom of their skis that allow them to ski up steep inclines with ease. I was hiking but only just behind the leading group. I quickly caught up as they stopped to shed a layer or two of clothing. It was ten minutes between the leaders, mid-pack hikers and skiers and the tail end of the team. One of the kids (as I call them) set a blistering pace from the start. Marc was happy to allow this to happen since the lesson was that we needed to keep everyone together as a team, fast and slow hikers/ skiers alike. When we all were back together he pointed all this out and prepared us for the next trick or two. The rest of the hike I remained close to Marc, listening to him tell stories of his past trips, pointing out features of the mountain I had never seen, talking about his daring ski descents of gullies like Yale and Damnation in Huntington's Ravine. He even pointed out the avalanche prone slopes which are the reason they shut down the Summer Lion Head hiking trail in the winter and even the gully where Albert Dow had been killed in an avalanche while on a search and rescue looking for Hugh Herr back in 1982. All of these things he was talking about had my ears glued to what he was saying.

That leads into sand bag #2! He started up the Summer Lion Head trail; we all walked by the bright orange sign that says "TRAIL CLOSED IN WINTER". I quickly thought to myself surely he is not going to take us up this trail but he probably has something to show us out of harms way. We stopped at the base of a slide path with obvious avalanche debris where we were standing. He then asked "Where are we?" We all looked around, up and down, left, right, finally someone said "We are in Avalanche Terrain" "That’s right" said Marc. "And how many of you thought as we were hiking by the trail closed sign, where are we going?" "Why didn't you say something?" he asked. The lesson was to communicate and prepare as a team before heading into that type of terrain so everyone is in the know as to where the group is going....We all thought well, he is the guide and there must be a reason he is going up here! Exactly what he wanted us to do...Lesson learned! The Gully he took us into is appropriately named Sand Bag Gully.

Recent destruction in the slide path of Hillman's Highway.

Mount Washington is currently in a 15-20 year Avalanche Cycle. What that means is, because of the heavy snow fall this season; the slide paths that normally run are going BIG, HUGE in fact. Hillman's Highway is one of them, trees some 80 years old have been snapped like tooth picks! It is quite incredible to see actually. If you're interested, hike up to Hermit Lake Shelters near Tucks and see for yourself, but read the Avalanche report before you go, even thought it is just a short distance from the shelter, it does get you into Avalanche terrain pretty quickly.

High winds moving snow into areas down off the Boot Spur Ridge.

We arrived at Hermit Lake shelter and had a bit of lunch while Marc and his assistant guide disappeared to set up a mock rescue scene. He returned about ten minutes later and went to the USFS Snow Ranger cabin to get Chris Joosen, Lead Climbing Ranger/ Avalanche Forecaster on Mt. Washington, so Chris could speak to the group about what the Snow Rangers do. It was very interesting listening to Chris talk about their typical day and what that entails. He answered a few questions and then we all took off to rescue our (fake) Avalanche victims. The first exercise took way too long! Nine minutes before we had our two victims found. The same was for the other group. The second time, we took charge and cut that down to three minutes. It was fun to be put into this practice scenario.

I took in a lot of useful information during this training course that will make my adventures into this type of terrain much safer. It really comes down to making good decisions based on all the available tools at ones disposal. As Marc pointed out to us, "As scientific as they are, avalanches are somewhat unpredictable in that, even on a low risk day, things can still go bad. It is critical to be able to asses your level of acceptable risk on any given day, travel in the safest terrain possible, read the Avalanche reports, check the weather before you go, take observations along the way and don't be afraid to call it quits and return to safety. The Mountains will always be there another day."

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